Saturday, 4 September 2010

what not to wear

Nothing says September like a new uniform, preferably one you won't grow into for about three years. And I'm not talking about the children.
I went to a girls' school with a purposely hideous uniform, designed presumably to make sure none of us would get pregnant before finishing our Alevels. If you were uber-cool (I wasn't) you shortened it and tightened it until you got sent home. If you were only ordinarily cool (I wasn't) you mutinously wore it long in school and rolled it over four inches at the waist to saunter home. Either way, one glance at someone's skirt and one at their tie (worn with fat knot, uncool: skinny side out, cool) revealed everything.
Sixth form was a long time ago. But if you think you're not still wearing a 'uniform' - and that others don't judge you on it - you're probably very wrong.
As this piece from science writer Ben Goldacre in the Guardian sets out, how women look can completely change people's perception of what they actually do: he cites a study showing female musicians were judged less proficient when they played in jeans than when they did so in a concert frock (even though the 'performance' was actually an identical tape recording, so musically there was no difference). If you don't look the part, you don't sound it.
Of course men are subject to similar judgements: would you trust a consultant in a scruffy Tshirt, or a white coat? But the big problem for women is managing careers where the 'right' uniform is really a man's: where you stand out like a sore thumb whatever you wear, because simply by being female you're not the norm. The strange obsession with what women politicians wear - from Jacqui Smith's cleavage to Theresa May's kitten heels - is partly because they can't wear what most people still think of as a politician's uniform, namely sober male tailoring: they stand out, no matter what.
My own uniform when I started covering politics was the dullest suit I could find: I was a young looking 26, constantly being mistaken for the secretary or the work experience girl, and desperately needed to look older. The big surprise was finding out years later that motherhood has an equally complicated sartorial code, where a brand of leggings or a Boden ballet pump can classify you as accurately as an old school skirt.
One of the reasons I've bought hardly any clothes for the last year is that I'm not sure what the dress code is for this particular stage of my life. Will I ever need a wardrobe full of suits again? If there's one thing more complicated than having uniform rules, it's not having any.


  1. After three pregnancies, I gave up on the "trouser suit, let's play the aggresive lawyer" and, actually, I think I have not worn a blazer again, even as a (presumably) senior now. Men have their safe harbour but, at least here in Spain - and in the firm I work for -, things have relaxed a bit for women and now, you could never tell whether you are in front of a lawyer, an assistant or the girl in charge of the stationery. Zara is of great help for these purposes...

  2. I can assure you that it can be just as difficult for men (or at least it is for me). I'd just got used to wearing a tie at work (it took about 20 years) when the company I was working for got took over and the new owners were anti tie!

  3. I've been bothered about this for months - years - as I don't want to labelled either Cath Kidston crumpet, Boden babe, Primark prima donna or Working (neglectful) Woman. Have decided very recently to try out the continental-style jeans and jacket look that seems to cover most perceptions: you might have just got back from walking the dog and baking buns or you could have just stepped out of a high-powered creative meeting. Finding shoes that fit schlepping on the Tube, school run and work is my next mission.....

  4. I hate that unlike men we don't have a work uniform - it makes it incredibly hard. I definitely lost my fashion sense for a while but have got it back - and yes its mostly not suits but other nice things, dresses and so on

    I find dressing for the Mummy Life even harder - people seem to be able to spot who is what in a single glance, scary

  5. When I embarked on my chosen career (social work) way back in the day, there was a determined effort by some of us to rid the profession of its jeans, Jesus sandals and Citroen 2CV connotations. These days, as a fairly new academic, I'm just thankful to be able to get into something that isn't too snug around the waist. So far I'm managing to draw the line at pyjamas.

  6. Very good point about the uniform! A friend was telling me about some recent presentation training where she'd been told to wear her hair up rather than down as it made her seem more authoritative and credible (she's 30 years old). I too had that advice years ago. Seems pretty un-PC nowadays but wonder if it's true or just something presentation trainers learn in presentation training school...

  7. I had thought my kids' playground defied pigeon-holing in terms of parental attire but one look down at tarmac level and I noted that the footwear of choice IS pretty uniform (for the mums, at least): it's Fly London wedges or Converse All Stars.

    Could be worse...could be Boden ballet pumps.


  8. We're in Hunter wellies here in Manchester, it seems to be the monsoon season so anything less and you'd have wet feet. One way to avoid it all is to wear exercise gear to school in the morning, as if you're about to go for a run or to a class (maybe you really are?), but then you can't wear it in the afternoon or it signals that you haven't showered, so back to square one. Toast usually fools everyone up here, there was a concession for a while in the Manchester Selfridges but no one bought anything there and they closed it, not fancy or "Friday evening" enough clearly.